For those of you who are unaware, I'm not originally from these shores (editors note: make sure you check the byline of this post). I'm an Englishman. A Limey, a Sassenach, a Rosbif, a Pom. Part of the cultural stereotype that I am obliged to fit into - aside from insisting on spelling words differently, crowing about the good old days of the Empire, and being emotionally stunted - is that I look down my nose at any soccer that isn't "English". Naturally, the evidence put in front of my face from a very early age only proved that this perceived superiority is misplaced, and since then I've tried to be even-handed when it comes to assessing the relative merits of the various leagues, players and the rest.
I must confess that prior to moving to the States, I was always quick with a barbed comment about MLS. "Sure", I would say "the national team is OK but the league is awful and anyway, they couldn't keep the last one going even with both Pele and Beckenbauer!" Now that I have been here for a few years though, I've grown quite fond of MLS. I generally have a liking for the 'underdog' in any case (which partially explains by dogged insistence on supporting a team in the 4th tier of the English league system) and in the past 4 years, the quality of MLS has undoubtedly improved.
I've noticed, though, that MLS hardly ever seems to be given the credit that it deserves. Despite being a missionary in a land of heathens (if you'll forgive the rather clunky metaphor), the league has survived and is showing signs of growing into a viable alternative to some of the competing sports. The next step is surely to convert the many American soccer fans that persist in supporting a team from the European leagues. This is something that will likely prove extremely difficult, and I don't think it's practical to expect people to give up on Manchester United or A.C. Milan to go and watch Columbus Crew. It is feasible, however, to remind such supporters that a competitive league exists nearby, get them to a game, and hope that what they see will encourage them to return.
However, there are always "eurosnobs" - for want of a better word - who are happy to denigrate and poke fun at MLS. They laugh at the names of teams, or the play off system, without really taking the time to understand the sports landscape that MLS must fit into if it is to survive and prosper. Sports fans in the United States are conditioned to having a system in place that is designed to maintain competition, bring new players through in a balanced manner, and to finish each year or season with a winner-take-all final. MLS has had to bow to these pressures simply get off the ground. In the past six seasons, MLS had five different champions, although granted, the play-off system does This compares pretty well with England (two), Spain (two), and Italy (just one, although a second team was stripped of the title because of the Calciopoli scandal).
Memo to fans who only follow European leagues; good teams do not automatically make a good competition.
Having said all of that, I'll finish on a rejoinder to the original question. Does MLS really need respect? It is, after all, rather a nebulous concept. You can't measure respect in dollars, you can't put it in a box and bring it in through customs. And in a country of nearly a third of a billion people, you simply don't need everybody to enjoy or respect soccer for MLS to flourish. Major League Soccer should be concentrating on improving the quality of the league before attempting to find new supporters. As the league improves, so will the attendances and the devotion of the fans.